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New Climate Change Guidance for NEPA Reviews

In the United States, federal agencies that license, permit or finance energy and infrastructure projects must, with some limited exceptions, analyze the environmental impacts of those projects before they approve them, pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA).  But to what extent must those agencies consider climate change impacts as part of their NEPA reviews? The President’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) has just issued a guidance document that addresses that question.

CEQ’s guidance document—an August 1 memorandum addressed to the heads of all federal departments and agencies—urges federal agencies to consider two climate change-related topics when conducting NEPA reviews.

The first topic is the impact of a proposed project on climate change, and the memorandum urges federal agencies to approach that topic by focusing on the project’s direct, and indirect, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Agencies are encouraged to calculate a project’s anticipated emissions using existing government resources and calculators, and to draw upon existing government literature on the impacts of such emissions. The memorandum acknowledges that “the totality of climate change impacts is not attributable to any single action,” but concludes that climate-related impacts are exacerbated by some government actions and encourages agencies to compare the level of emissions expected from a proposed project to the level expected under alternative project scenarios. The memorandum provides scant details on how to calculate “indirect” GHG emissions but does suggest that for projects involving fossil fuel extraction, the indirect impacts turn, at least in part, on the anticipated ultimate use of the extracted fuel.

The second topic is the impact of climate change on the project, and on the project’s impacts.Here, CEQ’s memorandum encourages federal agencies to consider a proposed project’s impacts not simply on environmental conditions as they currently exist but as they will exist in the future and reflecting any changes that are expected as a result of climate change. Thus, if a project will draw water from a river that is already being, or that will be, diminished because of changing snowfall or rainfall patterns, that is an impact that should be acknowledged. The memorandum also encourages agencies to incorporate climate change resiliency and adaptation planning into their NEPA reviews, especially when analyzing project alternatives and potential mitigation measures. The memorandum suggests, for example, that agencies consider whether a proposed project’s design makes it more vulnerable to changing climate conditions (such as, in some areas of the country, increased risk of wildfires) than alternative projects.

CEQ’s memorandum applies to all new NEPA reviews and states that agencies “should exercise judgment” when considering whether to apply the guidance to currently ongoing reviews. CEQ states in the memorandum that it “does not expect agencies to apply” the guidance to projects for which a final environmental impact statement or environmental assessment has already been issued.




EPA’s Next Generation Compliance Initiative – The Agency’s Latest Proposed Rule for Refineries Shows the Initiative in Action and Provides a Glimpse of the Future for Other Industries

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently released a proposed rule that illustrates several of the agency’s Next Generation Compliance ideas in action.  The proposed rule concerns hazardous air pollutant (HAP) emissions from refineries, but should be studied by anyone who wants to gain a better understanding of what “Next Generation Compliance” means as a practical matter.  Most importantly, the proposed rule shows the direction in which the agency is likely headed with respect to “fugitive” air emissions at other types of facilities – chemical plants, paper mills, distilleries, etc.

EPA uses the term “Next Generation Compliance” to cover several ideas:  (i) the use of new, advanced technologies to identify and measure emissions, (ii) electronic reporting of environmental data rather than paper reporting, (iii) greater disclosure of environmental data to the public, and (iv) regulations that contain fewer exceptions and more built-in incentives for compliance.

Many of those ideas are on display in EPA’s May 15 proposed rule for refineries, but two features of that rule stand out as being especially relevant to other industries, and as good examples of what Next Generation Compliance means in practice:

First, the proposed rule would impose emission limits that apply at all times; there are no exceptions for startups, shutdowns and malfunctions.  Under this approach, which, because of recent court decisions, will likely be standard for all HAP rules going forward, regulated parties will no longer be automatically shielded from penalties in the event they exceed emission limits because of an equipment malfunction.  But those parties may still be able to convince the agency, on a case-by-case basis, that they should not be penalized, based on the event-specific facts.

Second, the proposed rule would require refinery owners and operators to monitor ambient air quality at the fenceline of their facilities, and it encourages the use of new technologies to conduct that monitoring.  The agency explains, in the draft rule’s preamble, that this approach is intended to provide a flexible means of locating and controlling fugitive emissions – emissions that cannot easily be captured to pass through a stack or vent and that are usually estimated based on engineering judgments rather than measured directly.

Fenceline monitoring is a controversial topic.  Regulated parties sometimes fear that data from fenceline monitoring will be used to impose penalties for emissions that are not in fact unlawful, or that such monitoring will be used to support state law tort claims against the owners and operators of industrial facilities.  But in some situations, fenceline monitoring might provide a defense to state law nuisance and trespass claims, or otherwise exonerate a regulated party from blame for local air pollution problems.  In all events, a critical question is how the fenceline monitoring data will be used.  Does the data establish violations?  Does it trigger corrective action duties?  Does it trigger reporting duties?

The refinery proposal addresses each of those questions, but with mixed results.  Most importantly, there are places where the draft regulatory text and EPA’s explanation [...]

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Greenhouse Gas Limits for New Power Plants – Comments due to EPA by March 10, 2014

Yesterday, the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposal to set greenhouse gas emissions limits for new coal-fired and natural gas-fired power plants was published in the Federal Register.  This proposal was originally posted on EPA’s website on September 20, 2013; however, the formal publication triggers the start of a 60-day public comment period.  The publication also suggests that EPA is still on track to meet President Obama’s June 2014 deadline for publishing an initial proposal to regulate emissions from existing power plants.

The proposed rule would limit new coal plants to 1,100 pounds of CO2 emissions per megawatt-hour (lbs/MWh) of electricity produced, with compliance measured on a rolling average basis during each 12-operating month period.  The proposal would also require new small natural gas plants to meet a 1,100 lbs/MWh emission limit, while requiring larger, more efficient natural gas plants to meet a limit of 1,000 lbs/MWh.  The proposed rule will not regulate greenhouse gas emissions from existing or modified power plants.

Comments on the proposed rule are due by March 10, 2014, although EPA noted in the proposal that a comment will be “best assured of having its full effect” if received by February 7, 2014.  EPA will also hold a public hearing on January 28, 2014 in Washington, D.C. from 9:00 am to 8:00 pm, during which interested parties will be able to present their views (limited to 5 minutes each) concerning the proposed rule.  Given that EPA received over 2.5 million comments on its initial April 2012 proposal, a large number of stakeholders are likely to voice comments.




EPA Proposes CO2 Emission Limits for New Power Plants and on Track to Regulate CO2 Emissions from Existing Plants by 2015

by Jacob Hollinger and Bethany Hatef

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has issued a proposed rule concerning carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from new coal-fired and natural gas-fired power plants. The September 20 proposal meets a deadline set by President Obama in a June 25 Presidential Memorandum and keeps EPA on track to meet the President’s June 2015 deadline for regulating emissions from existing power plants. Once the September 20 proposed rule is published in the Federal Register, interested parties will have 60 days to comment on it. 

Under EPA’s September 20 proposal, which replaces an earlier, April 2012 proposal, new coal plants would be limited to 1,100 pounds of CO2 emissions per megawatt-hour (lbs/MWh) of electricity produced, with compliance measured on a 12-operating month rolling average basis.  The proposed rule would also require new small natural gas plants to meet a 1,100 lbs/MWh emission limit, while requiring larger, more efficient natural gas units to meet a limit of 1,000 lbs/MWh. 

EPA is required to set emission limits for new plants at a level that reflects use of the “best system of emission reduction” (BSER) that it determines has been “adequately demonstrated.”  For coal, EPA has determined that the BSER is installation of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology that captures some of the CO2 released by burning coal.  In essence, EPA is saying partial CCS is the BSER for new coal plants. But for gas, EPA is saying that the BSER is a modern, efficient, combined cycle plant.  Thus, CCS is not required for new gas plants.

An important feature of the proposed rule is the definition of a “new” plant. Under the pertinent section of the Clean Air Act (CAA), a “new” plant is one for which construction commences after publication of a proposed rule. EPA’s regulations, in turn, define “construction” as the “fabrication, erection, or installation of an affected facility,” and define “commenced” as undertaking “a continuous program of construction” or entering “into a contractual obligation to undertake and complete, within a reasonable time, a continuous program of construction.” 

EPA has concluded that its new proposal will have “negligible” benefits and costs – it won’t reduce CO2 emissions and it won’t raise the cost of electricity. This is based on EPA’s conclusion that even in the absence of the new proposed rule, all foreseeable new fossil fuel plants will be either modern, efficient combined cycle natural gas plants or coal plants that have CCS. In essence, EPA is proposing emission limits that it thinks would be met even in the absence of new regulations.

But if the rule won’t reduce CO2 emissions, why issue it?  First, EPA is of the view that it is required by the CAA to issue the rule; having already determined that CO2 emissions are endangering public health and welfare, EPA is required by § 111(b) of the CAA to publish regulations to address those emissions.  Second, EPA thinks the rule will provide regulatory certainty about what is expected of new plants.  Third, and perhaps most importantly, the rule [...]

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United Kingdom Government Confirms Change to Sustainability Criteria for Biomass

by Caroline Lindsey

The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) in the United Kingdom published its response to its “Consultation on proposals to enhance the sustainability criteria for the use of biomass feedstocks under the Renewables Obligation (RO)” on 22 August 2013 (the Response). The original consultation was published on 7 September 2012.

In the Response, the UK Government confirms that it will proceed with its proposals to revise the content and significance of the sustainability criteria applicable to the use of solid biomass and biogas feedstocks for electricity generation under the Renewables Obligation (RO). The RO is currently the principal regime for incentivising the development of large-scale renewable electricity generation in the United Kingdom. Eligible electricity generators receive renewables obligation certificates (ROCs) for each megawatt hour (MWh) of renewable source electricity that they generate. Biomass qualifies as renewable source electricity, subject to some conditions.

Changes to the criteria

The sustainability criteria associated with the RO is broadly divided into greenhouse gas (GHG) lifecycle criteria, land use criteria and profiling criteria. There will be changes to all of the criteria, but the significant changes relate to the first two criteria, and will take effect from 1 April 2014.

In general terms, the GHG lifecycle criteria are designed to ensure that each delivery of biomass results in a minimum GHG emissions saving, when compared to the use of fossil fuel. The savings are measured in kilograms (kg) of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2eq) per MWh over the lifecycle of the consignment (sometimes referred to as “field or forest to flame”). The UK Government has confirmed that all generating plants using solid biomass and / or biogas (including dedicated, co-firing or converted plants and new and existing plants) will be on the same GHG emissions trajectory from 1 April 2020 (200 kg CO2eq per MWh). In the meantime, new dedicated biomass power will be placed on an accelerated GHG emissions trajectory (240kg CO2eq per MWh). All other biomass power will remain on the standard GHG emissions trajectory (285kg CO2eq per MWh) until 1 April 2020.

Changes to the land use criteria will also be introduced. In particular, generating plants using feedstocks which are virgin wood or made from virgin wood will need to meet new sustainable forest management criteria based on the UK Government’s timber procurement policy principles.

The land use criteria set out in the European Union (EU) Renewable Energy Directive 2009 (RED) will continue to apply to the use of all other solid biomass and biogas, with some specific variations for energy crops. As is the current position, the land use criteria will not apply to the use of biomass waste or feedstocks wholly derived from waste, animal manure or slurry.

The new sustainability criteria will be fixed until 1 April 2027, except if the EU mandates or recommends specific changes to the sustainability criteria for solid biomass, biogas or bioliquids, or if changes are otherwise required by EU or international regulation.

Making compliance mandatory

Currently, whilst generators using [...]

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